Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Walk 14 - Fungi and flashes of colour: Spring Cottages and Stroud Slad Farm

I'm a little out of sequence here, because I haven't yet managed to make arrangements with the owners of Upper Vatch Mill and Vatch House through whose gardens the Slad Brook runs after it leaves Painswick Slad Farm's land.  So I'll have to come back to that section shortly. From the garden of Vatch House, the brook disappears into a culvert that runs under Slad Lane and parallel to Vatch Cottages, emerges by the little bit of woodland opposite Spring Cottages.  Today I'm walking the bit that follows, courtesy of the owners of 2-3 Spring Cottages and Stroud Slad Farm.

View down the valley across Stroud Slad Farm's fields
The season has moved on since my last walk, over a month ago.  We're now in the season of shorter days and colder nights, mists and mellow fruitfulness etc.  Well, mists and general dampness, anyway.  I've been looking forward to seeing the valley in autumn colours, but that hasn't happened quite as expected.  It's being described as a 'double dip autumn' because many of the trees started changing at the end of August, but then the weather went very warm at the end of September and slowed things down; it's only in the last two or three weeks that we've begun to get the traditional colours, and the process has been very patchy.  Some trees are already bare, others have turned interesting shades of orange and yellow, and some are still quite green.  In fact, as far as there is a 'normal' autumn, this is not it.  The weather's gone on being quite dry until very recently, but a real downpour at the end of last week started the leaves coming down in a big way.  Today is misty, moisty and low on light, so the ambience is going to be quite different from the other walks.

I know the beginning of the walk very well because it's almost outside my house.  The stream emerges briefly from the culvert, currently almost invisible under the weight of undergrowth, before disappearing under a bridge of railway sleepers which gives acess to our cottages.  Just here, I know the brook mainly as a noise of water, but I've learned to tell its likely depth from how it sounds.  I've learned not to underestimate it, too.  It's perhaps three feet wide here, if that, but in 2007, the year we moved to the The Vatch, after days of heavy rain, the culvert backed up and the stream burst its banks, surging thigh-deep down our little lane.  Vatch residents in pyjamas and wellies lugged sand bags, cleared drains and lifted the railway sleeper bridge so that the water could flow back into its course.  (It's a strange but curiously effective way to meet your neighbours!)  The water lapped at the doors of the lower cottages and then subsided.  I regard the brook with more respect now.

Spring Cottages
Today it's a peaceful trickle and, if anything, a bit low for the time of year.  After the plank bridge, it's in a pipe briefly through the corner of the cottage gardens before emerging in the garden of the middle house.  The gardens here are complicated; Spring Cottages were mill-workers' cottages originally, with a seven-storey mill building behind them.  What now looks like the back of the cottages was then the front, and each cottage had a strip of land away to the side, presumably for growing vegetables.  The strips have been rationalised over the years, but it's still hard to tell who owns what by looking at it.  The stream runs plumb through the garden of the middle house and Rod Shaw, who owns this bit, has tales to tell of the wildlife he's seen on it over the years, ranging from water voles to white egrets.  The latest visitor is a dipper, apparently, which he spotted earlier today.  I'd like to see it, but the chances aren't good because the garden is open up to this point and while Rod can watch hidden behind his windows, there's no way for me to approach without being in full view of any wildlife on the stream.

Needless to say, there's no sign of the dipper when I get there, but Rod's pretty plank-and-rail bridge is a good place to stop and watch the stream finding its way round the roots of several big alder trees.  These trees are still mainly green, but a nearby silver birch is bright with orange and yellow and there's a scattering of red rosehips and other berries.  With much of the colour leached out of the landscape by the change of season and the flat, low light, these bright spots really stand out.

Google map of the first part of this walk

The same is true on the other side of the gate, in the first field belonging to Stroud Slad Farm.  From a distance, it's all monochrome, but up close, there are little specks of colour and interest.  My eye is caught by a single fallen leaf, bronze-coloured except for a couple of symmetrical, bright green spots.  And another with green stripes, and a hawthorn leaf in red with brown speckles.  The more I look, the more pattern and colour there suddenly is to see.  I could spend a whole morning looking at individual leaves, if I didn't have four fields-worth of stream to cover.

The valley feels much narrower and more single-minded from this angle, with only a field's width actually visible on either side of the brook, fringed by woodland on the heights.  The mistiness of the upper edges, reduced to grey silhouettes, helps to close down the perspective.  This is what my mother calls 'quiet weather', with hardly a breath of wind.  Everything is cloaked in droplets of water and the trees by the stream are wading in wet brambles and hung with soggy-looking ivy.  There are plenty of birds around - I disturb a blackbird having a bath in a puddle and spot a robin on the wing snatching a blackberry from a bramble thicket.  In the trees above, any number of others are providing material for the sound recorder.   It's bad light for identifying birds because most of them are just black shapes in black trees against a dead white sky, so I'm rather pleased with myself for spotting the bird I've just been recording - a nuthatch, lurking in a hawthorn bush.

As at Down Farm, I have to zigzag up and down the fields to cross from one to the other via gates at the top.  It's brighter up here, with open views towards Stroud, but also feels wetter.  I seem to be closer to the mist and cloud - almost in it, rather than merely under it.  At the top of the first field is a hawthorn tree heavily colonised by mistletoe.  .  It's a good time of year to enjoy the shapes of trees, especially the ones that have already lost their leaves, and from up here, I can take them in better than when I'm right underneath them .  Down by the stream I notice an unusual shape for the Slad Brook treescape - an oak tree.  The only others I've seen so far growing actually by the stream were the giant by Steanbridge House lake and another one just downstream from the lake.  Were there once more oak trees, I wonder, and are these few the survivors of felling in an earlier age?

Toadstool collar
I go down to take a closer look at the oak, and find an old stone bridge, similar to others I've seen along the stream.  Closer inspection underneath it reveals water flowing out of an opening in the side of the bridge - a spring or underground stream or run-off, I suppose.   Also nearby is a slim young tree with few branches and fewer leaves and an extraordinary lacy collar of fairy-like toadstools.  Fungi are due to become one of the defining features of this walk - by the end of it I've seen more different kinds than I think I've ever seen in one day, enough to need a whole separate folder for the photos.  I've never been a great fungi enthusiast, but when they force themselves on your notice in such variety it's difficult not to get interested,  I've also noticed a proliferation of different toadstools on Swifts Hill recently, so maybe the weather conditions have been just right for them.  That's the thing about weather - whatever it is, it's always good for someone.  I guess the amount of dead wood and general dampness encouraged by the trees round the stream may mean good conditions for fungi.

There's no doubt that this is an oak tree because, apart from the leaves, the ground beneath it is covered in acorn-cups.  The actual acorns are missing, but the cups are mostly undamaged, which means that whichever nut-eater took the acorns sat down and carefully extracted them from the cups first.  Does that sound like squirrels to you?  No, me neither; in my garden I get hefty, thuggish squirrels with a very direct approach to food gathering.  But perhaps a colony of dainty, maiden-auntish squirrels lives in this oak tree.  Something fairly thuggish has stripped a couple of small trees nearby of most of their bark, though.

While I'm musing into the sound recorder about the way trailing tree roots have coralled dead leaves into patterns in the stream, bright yellow against dark water like an Andy Goldsworthy artwork, I'm stopped in mid-sentence by an unexpected sound.  A tawny owl, unless I'm much mistaken, hooting from one of the trees in the woods above.  Unusual, but not the first time I've heard them in the daytime around here.  There is other evidence of the local mammals - badgers have been rooting up patches of grass just here, and as I pause to look more closely, a deer dashes out of cover and away from me.  It was lurking in a triangle of rough scrub which is fenced off from the rest of the field.

As higher up the valley, the divisions between the fields are defined by small streams running in clefts down to the main brook, carving the landscape into manageable chunks.  The further towards Stroud I go, the more lumpy the landscape becomes and the sharper the hills between the clefts.  Walking in the third of Stroud Slad's fields, with their sheep for company, I find myself looking across the stream to Hazel Mill, a beautiful Cotswold stone house with part of an old mill building in its garden.  From this side of the stream, I can see a leat or channel of some sort running through the garden parallel with the stream but higher up, and a cascade where the water from the channel joins the main stream.  I make a mental note to investigate more closely at another time.  From here, the stream plunges into a thicket of brambles.

In the garden of Hazel Mill is a tree which has turned a uniform, vivid gold and makes a brilliant spot of colour in an otherwise drab landscape.  Something similar occurs at micro level down by the stream - here is an unexpected flash of shocking pink where the last red campion is still flowering.  Otherwise, the brightest colours in this field are the identifying flashes of orange on the bottoms of the sheep!

And while we're on the subject of colour, here's an interesting thing.  The hazel and alder trees by the stream are mainly still green, but the ground beneath them is carpeted with yellow and brown leaves.  In this third field  I find a beautiful example; a classic hazel clump, its remaining leaves mostly green, but with a russet-coloured leaf shadow beneath it.   Which means that the leaves must be turning in stages and falling off almost as soon as they turn - perhaps because of last week's rain?

Leaf shadow
The final field is not so much a field as a big green hump, with a view from the top up to a bronze glow of  beechwoods on the ridge.  At the field boundary, the stream suddenly becomes broad and quiet, the water spreading like glass and reflecting its entourage of trees beautifully.  Drifts of yellow and orange leaves lie on the water, leaves sitting on reflections of leaves.  Then the stream plunges over a little waterfall and becomes narrow between steep banks, noisily negotiating an obstacle course of trailing roots and seeming to gather speed as it rushes towards Stroud.  It's been less of a secret stream today - the trees growing beside it are confined to the very edges of the banks and are more widely spaced, so there isn't this overhung area of bank to walk in and it feels more open.  At the end of this field is another tributary, coming in from the road side this time, and making a pleasing noise as it splashes into the stream via a discarded bit of metal.   I have to make three attempts to record it because of aeroplanes going over - I've noticed this before, that every time I hit the 'record' button there seems to be a plane looming.  Do we really have so many planes here?  I don't seem to notice them normally.  I'm now close enough to Stroud to pick up, faintly in the distance, the voices of children in a school playground.

Leaves and reflections of leaves
That's the end of today's section of stream, but not of the walk, which has to be of the there-and-back variety.  I walk back along the tops of the fields to take in the views I've missed being down by the brook.  This is a great privilege of doing these walks - I get to see the valley from angles that I never otherwise would, in this case in a great sweep up to Knapp Farm and Swifts Hill.  The mist is fading, there's a gleam of sun, and patches of colour in the woodland fringes are coming into focus.  After a morning by the stream getting up close and personal with individual leaves, flowers and fungi, it's good to stretch my eyes.  (Not that I've called time on the fungi; in fact, now I'm officially on my way home and am supposed to be getting a move on, I can't seem to stop seeing them, in all varieties, from tiny, bright orange ones, to huge, squidgy rambling ones.) I'm also getting a new angle on our own Spring Cottages.  I've never actually seen them head-on like this before, and I now see why the southward-facing side, which I think of as the back, is actually the front - they look less rambly, and almost elegant, from this side.

One final flash of colour: the red underside of the tail of a greater spotted woodpecker, perched at the very top of a tree on one of the field boundaries.  I feel rather proud of myself for recognising his silhouette before getting that confirming red flash in the binoculars.

And a flash of black-and-white to end with.  As I climb back through Rod's garden, I'm passed by a fast-moving streak of black wing and white underbelly shooting up from the stream.  I'm almost certain it was the visiting dipper.  Almost.

Google map of second part of walk - Stroud Slad Farm

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